Qu'est que c'est? A French "home for the holidays" dramedy about a dysfunctional family with a dying mother? What next? Armageddon on the shores of Normandy? Halloween in the halls of Versailles? And as the matriarch, it's the immortal Catherine Deneuve whom leukemia dares to threaten.
The mother of four, Junon (Deneuve) and her tranquil husband, Abel, are still madly in love with each other. Elizabeth, now the eldest, is a misanthropic playwright with a teen-age son whose depression has just flared up. Ivan, the youngest, is watchful of his nephew: He, too, had the disease as a teen, and he looks back with affection on his difficult boyhood. Henri, in the middle, is a prodigal theater director whom Elizabeth bailed out of a financial mess on the condition that he never again attend family gatherings. (He accepted.)
That leaves Joseph, dead of lymphoma at age 6, nearly 40 years earlier, when none of his siblings was a compatible donor. Joseph's death still lingers, and now, with Junon dying of a similar disease, his absence is especially present when they all -- including the banished Henri, and also cousin Simon, who's in love with Ivan's wife -- come home for Christmas.
That's a lot of anxiety for any real family, but for an eccentric and artistic movie clan, it's just about right. A Christmas Tale is relatively straightforward, although director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin can't resist dressing it up just a little as art: We get iris shots, allusions to classic cinema, and direct address to the camera. None of it intrudes on the core humanity of its characters, whom Desplechin explores thoroughly in his arduous but rewarding film. It's about how each generation passes its maladies on to the next, and vice versa, and how families save each other, and especially how children save their parents.
"Don't act beyond your ability to repair," the astute but abhorrent alcoholic Henri (Mathieu Amalric, also the ophidian villain of the latest Bond movie) says of their beatific mother. "Junon can get away with anything because she can repair everything. Others can do little besides be forgiven." He tells us this while he sits on a stool in front of a blue wall, as if doing a monologue on stage. Then, he turns even more modernist: "We're in the midst of a myth," he observes, "and I don't know what myth is it."
Well, I do. It's the myth of the family drama, which sends us home with watery eyes and a moral. And who can resist, especially when the sick one is Deneuve. I can imagine no other actress who could recount the grim medical statistics about her chances so matter-of-factly without making us think she has no heart. Deneuve has long been called the great stone-face of international cinema, and at times she still is. It's just that we know her so well now that she barely needs to tell us what she feels. In French, with subtitles.